116 years of farming on the ‘thousand acre block’

116 years of farming on the ‘thousand acre block’
Peter and Nicki Webster with sons George and Tom at the Century Farm awards.

Surrounded by a stand of Bluegum trees, the old tin hut once took pride of place at the southern end of ‘Camp Paddock’ in the middle of the farm. You won’t find it there anymore though.
Built by Arnold Richards as his living quarters upon returning from the 1st World War, the hut was later moved to the farm’s main yard as shearers’ quarters, having served Arnold’s residential purpose.
Eventually relegated to storage, it remains an enduring reminder of one family’s roots that span 116 years – still with the bones of the original timbers, dressed in its corrugated iron the old girl now looks her age.
The property where the tin hut stands was originally purchased in 1902 by Arnold’s father, Thomas Richards, an Irish immigrant from the late 1800’s.
Located in the Mid Canterbury region of Dorie, just 10 kilometres from the East Coast, the original block consisted of 1014 acres and was known by locals as the ‘thousand acre block’.
It was later renamed Rhodes Hill – taking its name from the first settler of the property in September 1879. Now in the care of Thomas’ great grandson, Peter Webster and wife Nicki – to appreciate the present we must know the past and that is where all good pioneering stories must start.
Once carpeted in tussock, much of that was cleared by Thomas but in later years he reprimanded his son, Arnold, for taking out the last of the tussocks in the ‘broom paddock’ as too much lambing shelter was being lost.
Arnold purchased the property in 1920, building the first homestead three years later when he married Gladys Brough, a union resulting in two daughters – June and Gwen.
Although prior to the arrival of electricity in the area, with an eye to the future Arnold wired the house in anticipation of the time when ‘the power’ would be switched on.
Forever inventive, Arnold built a waterwheel in the yard to pump water to the house from stock water races. Horses and carts were frequent sights travelling to Mainwarings Road beach for shingle.

116 years of farming on the ‘thousand acre block’
George, Peter and Tom Webster with modern combines (top). Arnold Richards harvesting in 1939. Rhodes Hill in the 1950s and an asset schedule from 1928.

Used to make concrete fence post, some still proudly stand to this day – a reminder of the physical labour expended by the farm’s forebears.
Passionate about farming, Gwen worked on the farm while also nursing her sick mother. In 1958, Gwen married Bob Webster, purchasing the property the same year and trading as Rhodes Hill Ltd.
Known for their Corriedale Stud and breeding ewes there were many ‘Blade Shearing Courses’ held on farm – the names of the participants written
on the shearing shed walls—still there today.
Bob was one of the first farmers in Mid Canterbury to harvest grain in bulk and built the first silo to store it in—many doubters thought the grain would become spoilt.
Three sons were born, John, Andrew and Peter – all three passionate about farming and the farm, working on it during their school holidays. Andrew commenced on the farm in 1977 after leaving school, and then Peter in 1979.
Over time more land was purchased and the first irrigation well drilled in 1982. “The original pump is still operational today and has done in excess of 100,000 hours, says Peter.
“Further irrigation was developed in 1984 and 1985 to cover the whole farm. Irrigation allowed the farm to move from a dryland sheep and crop farm to become more intensive and diversify into growing other crops, trading in store lambs over the winter.”
Peas, wheat and barley were staple crops at the start, however vegetable seeds and more diverse crops became part of the mix.
“Andrew was one of the first growers of carrot seed in New Zealand when Midland Seeds introduced the crop to Mid Canterbury,” explains Nicki.
“Peter planted his first crop two years later. There wasn’t much known about how to grow this crop at that time and Peter can recall placing out many sites of sheep livers along the rows to attract flies to assist with pollination.”
In 1987 Bob and Gwen saw the time was right to move to Ashburton and leave the boys the opportunity and challenge of making the irrigation work.
Leasing two separate blocks, Andrew and Peter were able to purchase them three years later, establishing farms in their own name. In 1997 Andrew chose to lease his portion of the farm to Peter and Nicki and they subsequently purchased it from him in 2000.
Forever diversifying, Peter and Nicki have expanded their operations to include a chicken breeding facility, leased to Tegal.
With dairying becoming prolific in the area, and Peter always enjoying his cattle a decision was made to convert part of the farm to dairy and spread business risk. More recently they have purchased Belmont Farm in Aylesbury.
Much has changed over the last century and a bit, with four generations tilling the soils and making their own progressive mark on the land, and another generation about to start.
“After working in Australia and other local farms then completing their Diploma’s in Agriculture and Farm Management Tom and George have both decided they wanted to be part of the family business.”
The Webster’s youngest son James is currently on his OE in the United States.
Some things have stayed the same at Rhodes Hill—many of the paddock names are still based on the original paddocks, and the old tin shed still stands to remind us of the start.
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